Detroit: The Antidote to Self-Pity

I read Arc of Justice with my ears while raking leaves in the parking lot of a half empty office building. Less than raking leaves, I mostly thrust them into small piles the wind soon blew away. My MFA from NYU proven fruitless, I was feeling nice and sorry for myself; the real flamboyant Adele-esque self-pity parade that only comes to town when alone. I couldn’t believe I was raking leaves, I couldn’t believe I was doing real estate in Mississippi, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t received an Oscar for my first short film that basically predicted the Black Blue All Lives Matter movement, highlighted Police Brutality, and explored the racial complexity of sports adulation and poverty in a deep southern town. You can see it here. I predict after 5 viewings you will get past the bad acting, shoddy sound, and mediocre direction and discover much much less than a masterpiece.

Arc of Justice slapped the self-pity off my face. The non-fiction book tells the story of the trial of Dr. Ossian Sweet. If you live in Detroit and you have not heard of Ossian Sweet, buy the book here and get your life together. You live in the D. For those outside Detroit, Dr. Ossian Sweet was an African American doctor in 1920’s Black Bottom, Detroit. Read about the Black Bottom here. This is what it looks like now (You tell me). Dr. Sweet moved to Detroit after medical school at Howard, started his own practice, got married, and decided to buy his wife and young daughter a house on the East side in a working class ethnic neighborhood; his family the only black one on the street.  (Well except the folks who sold him the house, but they were passing.)

His first two nights a mob forms around his house, and the second night the mob threaten to attack and throw rocks against the house. Neighbors screamed for them to leave their street, and not in those words. (Tupac, To Live in Die in LA) His younger brother shoots outside into the mob and accidentally kills someone. The subsequent trial for this shooting involves key figures in Detroit history like judge Frank Murphy who went on to become Mayor, Governor, and US Supreme Court Justice joining the unanimous decision in Brown vs Board of Education. Read more about him here. Maybe even bigger than Frank Murphy, the trial brought world famous Clarence Darrow to Detroit to argue the case, using the whole trial as a profound human statement against racism. Never heard of Clarence Darrow? Please read about him here and think about joining a book club or you know just keep directing messaging strangers. Your life. 

Arc of Justice tells a larger than life story about a larger than life city. The book covers so much more than the trial. It tells the history of Detroit, its climb to the pinnacle of wealth and innovation, and the conditions pre-cursing its demise. I fell in love with Detroit for the first time in that book. I fell in love with the struggle that is Detroit. I wanted to move to Detroit to do my art thing. I wanted to maybe save a couple houses. I talked to David Alade about the idea and he had jokes for days. Detroit, blah, this, blah,dangerous, that, blah. (He gets a pass because he didn’t know better.)  A year or so later, David reached out to me, trying to convince me to give Detroit a look again. And like a girl you are going to marry, she looked even better the second time.

David and I have lived in Detroit for well over a year. We’ve biked to meetings with whoever would see us, walked through tons of vacant homes, waited in long lines for new restaurants, and danced the sundown and back up during Movement. Me: I have only fallen more in love with Detroit, its history, beauty, and people - new and old.

Last weekend I finally made it to the original home for Dr. Ossian Sweet on Garland Avenue, one of the few houses remaining on the block. Many of the others had already been demolished; maybe for the best, but The Ossian Sweet house remained; a plaque in front of it and a family living there. Looking at the house and staring at the street where a mob once stood, I kind of started getting that feeling that is the opposite of self-pity, an itch to see more houses renovated on Garland, an imagining of a whole neighborhood reborn and redeemed right in front of my eyes. I wanted to get back to work.   

Summer Fellow


So for those who don’t know, my name is Joey Kemeny and I worked for Century Partners this past summer.  I’m a senior now at the University of Michigan majoring in business with minors in French and urban studies. 

I became interested in real estate after taking an urban planning class my freshman year, realizing it would be a perfect way to merge my business interests with my newfound love of the built environment. Now that I’m a senior, I get asked what I want to do next year a lot, and I usually say real estate developer.  When I tell people that, a common response is “oh, like Donald Trump?” They’re usually joking, but to me it raises a much more alarming question: what does good development, or perhaps more importantly a good developer look like? 

I’m from Bloomfield Hills, an affluent suburb of Detroit, and the business school I go to is named after an extremely successful real estate developer.  I’m a member of the real estate club at Michigan, where we host a number of companies that come to campus and recruit for jobs.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that it really would not have been that difficult for me to find a job with a large corporation or even a smaller company doing real estate development.  David actually asked me that when I interviewed at Century Partners “with all of these connections, it seems like you wouldn’t have a hard time getting a job, so why do you want to work for us?”

That question instantly brought me back to the reason why I’m doing real estate in the first place.  The class that I took freshman year was from an urban planning perspective, and took a much more idealistic approach to real estate than the more direct financial approach I’ve learned from the business school.  That professor emphasized the four E’s of cities: Economy, Equity, Environment and A(E)sthetics.  Far too often developers only worry about the first one, and only consider the other factors when forced to by local government or residents.  But approaches that focus too much on social equity or the environment can sometimes become unfeasible because they refuse to pay enough attention to economic concerns.  Century Partners, as a for profit company with a mission, has been tackling these all at once.  Investing directly in the communities, building wealth for longtime homeowners and residents, focusing on denser living and less car usage and saving beautiful structures in historic neighborhoods accomplishes all of these goals.  It has been fantastic to see a company striving to maximize returns while not forgetting that cities are so much more than excel spreadsheets.   

I came to Detroit because I wanted to learn firsthand about the issues the city is facing.  I chose Century Partners because they are trying to solve these problems the right way.  Detroit, for all the bad names it has been called, the crooked politicians, suburban flight and other things that have happened to it, has residents who have never left and people who are working and living there now trying to fix the problems the city currently face.  They won’t always get the right answer right away; well-meaning city officials will make mistakes, developers with the best intentions might still disrupt a neighborhood, and Detroit might have problems that we aren’t even aware of yet and that we might not know how to solve.  But one thing I can tell you is that the people living there now will sure as hell try. 

So thanks for all the lessons, Detroit.  I’ll see you again soon. 

Why Detroit? Why now?

Subject: Thank you and Farewell

Friends and Colleagues,

Today, I leave New York City, the only city I’ve ever called home, along with a life-long collection of friends and colleagues, to make a new home in the city I believe represents the greatest modern possibility in the world: Detroit.

My peers, family and mentors have been equal parts supportive and skeptical.

I’ve heard: Why Detroit? Are you from there?  Nope.

Do you have family there? Nope (although you can never really be too sure)

Can’t you do “this” from New York? Negative.

After years of investment banking grunt work, are you sure now is the right time to leave a tangible career for some unknown possibility? For Detroit: Absolutely.

I’ve thought long and hard about the truest answer to the “Why Detroit?” question.

Detroit is a city with a unique and vibrant culture, an incredible legacy of innovation and a fascinating history both in its shining moments and its more challenged ones. Many forget it was the predecessor to today’s Silicon Valley, actually dwarfing it’s output, for the better part of the 20th century, spurred on by its world leading automotive technological innovation.

By the 1950s, Detroit residents held the country’s highest median household income. By the 1960s, Detroit was the fourth largest city in the U.S., with nearly 2 million residents.  Before Henry Ford even set up shop at the turn of the 20th century, Detroit was already referred to as the “Paris of the Midwest” for its grand architecture and expansive boulevards, financed by the wealth of industry, manufacturing and shipping magnates. You can still see the vestiges of that wealth in the historic homes and basic infrastructure of the city. Many of the neighborhoods retain the look and feel of spaces built for incredibly wealthy people in an incredibly wealthy place during one of the wealthiest eras in American history.

With its bankruptcy in the rear-view mirror, the sustained momentum in the auto industry (the Big 3 are more profitable than they have ever been), increasing commercial activity in the city’s downtown and midtown districts in tandem with the modern generational and global shift towards urban living, Detroit offers young folks a rare operating environment to own and manage affordable real estate assets at a modest entry point, without excessive leverage.

How often does one have an opportunity to make a material lasting impact in a city with a story as rich and poignant as Detroit? A city that, notwithstanding it’s checkered history, continues to maintain its relevance within America’s broader economic landscape and a firm grip on our collective imagination.

During my time in investment banking, I worked closely with some incredibly talented and industrious individuals. I worked on small deal teams responsible for delivering a broad array of financing solutions to dozens of mid-size to Fortune 500 corporations and raised hundreds of billions of dollars in financing, primarily via structured instruments. Financing that, in part, allows American families affordable credit for back to school clothes for their kids, transportation to get to and from work, loans for college and homes in which to live.

From my time as an intern at Lehman Brothers, to working full-time at Barclays Capital, I learned how to maneuver through grueling hours to deliver actionable solutions within pressure packed environments. Following a move to Credit Suisse, I was promoted to Vice President and had grown to be a trusted advisor to my clients, leading some of their most strategic transactions.

What I loved most about the job was the people, particularly my clients. I sat in the middle of a highly developed but constantly evolving ecosystem comprised of people from all over the world with varying competing interests. For any single transaction, I was tasked with managing the interests of the client first and foremost, the lawyers, the accountants, the trustees, our syndicate and sales teams, the traders, my internal credit and business committees, operations and compliance teams, the money managers and investors. It’s a challenging proposition, but afforded me an opportunity to engage with and learn from a hyper-diverse array of individuals. That’s the GOOD.

Now for the BAD: there's a lingering sense of impermanence inherent to the job. Clients that I loved would move on to other positions or companies. The focus is rarely on the now, but rather on the next: the next deal, loan facility or fee opportunity. For a senior banker, your entire livelihood hinges entirely upon your ability to grow and monetize the transaction pipeline, a tension that breeds an unyielding restlessness.

For me, Detroit represents an opportunity to forge a more permanent, lasting connection. I will be able to retain many of great things I loved about my old job: the relationship building, the thrill of the deal, the results oriented analysis and subsequent execution. Except with Detroit, I hope to measure my impact with something more substantial than dollars and cents. I hope to help stabilize and re-invigorate historic neighborhoods, in part by giving homes built 100 years ago another century of life. I hope to democratize a pathway to property ownership and wealth building.

Detroit is a city on an aggressive comeback trail that is now drawing a vast array of individuals to its core: agents who yearn for a new canvas on which to create, to make an impact and to obtain ownership. Detroit is not a blank canvas, but rather an open one with enough space for passionate individuals to make a lasting imprint amidst a rapidly evolving urban backdrop. Its streets are filled with palpable possibility, zealously anchored by a belief in the power of locally propelled transformation, even for the historical doubters.

So why Detroit?  I could say it’s some combination of its people, its opportunities, the possibilities and its history.

But really, though I’ll always love New York, I’m moving to Detroit because, right now, there’s no other place like it.

With love and gratitude,